Book Review | What Moves the Dead (ARC)

I received a digital advance reader’s copy (ARC) of What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.

In T. Kingfisher’s What Moves the Dead, Alex Easton, retired soldier, receives a letter from childhood friend Madeline Usher. Her brother is certain she is dying, and she wants Easton to come visit. So Easton journeys to the siblings’ home, which is clearly decaying. Not only that, but Madeline is sleepwalking and speaking bizarrely, mushrooms are growing all over the grounds, and the hares on the land are behaving like no hares should behave. So Easton, along with a doctor summoned to help Madeline and a mycologist who’s studying the fungus on the land, sets out to discover what is causing all this—and if it can be stopped.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” is easily one of my favorite short stories by Poe I’ve ever read, and so when I heard about this retelling, I had to read it immediately. And it didn’t disappoint!

I thought the way Kingfisher wrote Easton, the narrator, was fantastic. There’s very little in the original version that tells us anything definitive about who this person is, other than a friend of the Ushers, so the decision to explore not only Easton’s history as a soldier but also the role of gender was wonderful. I loved the depiction of a gender nonconforming person existing in this time period, and how that might have looked, especially in the fictional country where gender is less emphasized than the one in which I live. Additionally, the role of trauma from being at war is also present here, so keep that in mind if it’s a subject that affects you strongly.

On another note, the atmosphere and tone of this book are spectacular. The Ushers’ home is eerie and strange, and the images of its degradation are vivid. The woods and mountain lake around it feel so present on the page. And the scenes featuring some of the creepier aspects of all these places are so intense.

Typically, I don’t read horror, but I made a bit of an exception for this, because I knew what the plot would be generally. But this is still so unsettling, and the descriptions and dialogue are really effective. Easton’s narration is great, and you can feel the fear. There isn’t gore, exactly, but there’s still some pretty visceral scenes, and if you don’t like certain types of body horror, this might not be the book for you.

For me though, I found this story’s scariness to be excellent. The horror of Poe’s original story works because you don’t really know what is happening to Madeline; the horror of this story, however, works because you do. The more you learn, the worse it is, the understanding contributing to the revulsion. I do think the ending could have been a little more epic, as I was expecting a confrontation between the two Usher siblings as happened in the original. As it was, it was still a good and satisfying ending, though not as iconic as its predecessor.

In the end, though, What Moves the Dead is a delightfully horrifying novella. It’s grotesque and chilling and disconcerting, and an insightful take on a classic story. The mood is pretty sinister, though there are still wonderful moments of levity and character development. The characters are great, especially Easton and Madeline. It was a horror novel I’ll probably reread, which I don’t think I’ve ever said before. Another thing I’ve never said before, but I also really, really mean this—if you read this book, you’ll never look at hares the same way again.

What Moves the Dead is available now!

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